It’s often said great basketball officiating requires striking the proper balance between art and science.
That’s due, in part, to the fact that the rulebooks governing NFHS, NCAAM and NCAAW in some instances provide a perfect blueprint for how an official should operate, and just a few pages one way or the other leave enough room for individual interpretation through which you can drive a semi-truck.
Fouls against a ballhandler? It doesn’t get any more cut and dried. Each rule code specifically spells it out: If a defender does X, Y or Z with the hands or arms and makes contact, it’s a foul. The science has been well established. Officials know what constitutes a foul. Coaches generally know what constitutes a foul. Players also generally know what constitutes a foul. (Fans do not know, but that’s an entirely different story.)
However, a perfect counterpoint to this science is the art of the technical foul, especially in the domain of “unsporting acts,” “unsporting behavior” or “misconduct.” What exactly does that mean? The rulebooks attempt to provide some additional clarity, using phrases such as “disrespectfully addressing or contacting an official,” “gesturing in such a manner as to indicate resentment,” “using profane or inappropriate language,” “baiting or taunting an opponent” and more.
The challenge is these phrases often lead to individual interpretations. What one official may deem as nothing more than a high school kid being a smart mouth, another official may decide crosses a line and must be punished with a technical foul. Who is right? Who is wrong? Does it depend on the situation and the setting? The level of play (a high school freshman game vs. a men’s college game)? Is an assigner/supervisor/coordinator going to have the official’s back, whichever way he or she rules? So much for science … we now have a whole lotta art going on, and while you may enjoy Picasso, I may prefer Van Gogh.
My motivation for exploring this topic, in addition to hopefully educating officials and bringing about an important rules-based and philosophical discussion about unsporting behavior and technical fouls, is admittedly selfish: During my just-completed 2020-21 high school basketball season, I issued 16 technical fouls in 80 games from freshman to high school varsity. It became a bit of a running joke around the office: “How many people did you whack last night?” Chances are I handed out more technical fouls than any other official in southeastern Wisconsin.
Of that 16, one was an administrative technical for a wrong uniform number in the scorebook. So that doesn’t count in the “unsporting behavior” realm. The remaining 15 included five against coaches and 10 against players. None were for fighting, a no-brainer category of its own. So that means I had 15 opportunities to decide whether the behavior was worthy of a technical foul based on the rules as written, and voted in the affirmative. There were undoubtedly additional situations where I decided some manner of squirrely behavior did not cross the line.
Now, keep in mind, I am not bothered by my “T” number. I’ve heard it often said officials are much more prone to beat themselves up for the times they did not give a “T” and should have instead of the other way around, and I would say I fall into that camp. As I sit here writing this, I am replaying situations from this past season where I did not penalize behavior when I maybe should have, not the other way around.
That said, I certainly understand others’ mileage may vary, as evidenced by the number of officials with whom I worked this season who confessed they could count on one hand the number of technical fouls they had issued during their 20-plus-year careers. That tells me one of three things: said officials define unsporting behavior differently than I do, I attract the bad apples like moths to a flame, or there are many officials out there who quite simply are not taking care of business because they don’t want others to view them as “T” happy.
All that said, I am going to offer up five different situations I encountered this season and will let you know how I ruled and the reasoning behind my decision. As you read each situation, try to envision yourself as the official and whether you would deem the described behavior as “unsporting behavior” worthy of a technical foul.
Play 1: A1 is holding the ball on the perimeter. As soon as A1 begins to dribble, B1 places two hands on the ballhandler. As the trail official, I rule a hand check on B1. While reporting the foul to the scorer’s table, team B’s head coach expresses his displeasure with the call, at which point I tell the coach, “Two hands on a ballhandler is an automatic foul.” The coach turns his back, stomps away and yells loud enough for everyone in the sparsely populated gym to hear, “That’s a terrible call!” Ruling 1: Technical foul. The coach asked why he was not warned, believing his behavior did not warrant a “T” because he did not “make it personal.” I believe unsporting behavior is not just a matter of what is said, but how it is said. Screaming at full volume checks a lot of boxes related to an unsporting foul under NFHS rules.
Play 2: A1 is cutting through the lane on an inbounds play from the endline. Feeling as though an opposing player is getting too handsy with her, she says loud enough for everyone to hear, “Get your hands off me.” Moments later, after the ball has been inbounded, A1 ends up in front of me, the center official, and says loud enough for me and her team bench behind me to hear, “She better not (expletive) do that again,” at which point I tell her that any additional such language will not be tolerated. A team A assistant coach then says, loud enough for me to hear, “She can say whatever she wants.” Ruling 2: Technical foul on the assistant coach. To me, this falls under the “disrespectfully addressing an official” portion of the NFHS unsporting rule. I am not OK with a coach contradicting an edict I have delivered to a player. If I don’t punish this behavior, I feel it opens the door to additional problems throughout the remainder of the game.
Play 3: A1’s actions clearly identify him as a game-wrecker, as he picks up two early fouls and complains about several rulings throughout the first half. Late in the first half, he fouls a shooter for his third foul. As the trail official, I am standing near his team bench/the scorer’s table when the first free throw is missed and A1 is replaced by a sub. As A1 leaves the floor, he says only loud enough for me to hear, “The ball don’t lie.” Ruling 3: I chose to ignore the remark. Yet as I mentioned already, this is one of those situations where I believe I should have issued a technical foul. We all have heard players utter the “ball don’t lie” line after a missed free throw, but this was specifically meant by this player to indicate that I made up a call. My thinking in the moment was that I was the only person who heard it, and I did not want to put a fourth foul on A1 in the first half.
Play 4: I give a team A assistant coach a technical foul for arguing a foul call. I inform the head coach she must remain seated as she has lost access to the coaching box due to the bench technical foul against her team. The head coach argues she does not have to sit because the first technical foul was not against her. I explain the rule to her and tell her again that she has lost the coaching box. She yells out loud enough for everyone to hear, “The game is about the kids. It’s not about you!” Ruling 4: Technical foul. This is a clear case of a coach trying to embarrass me and being disrespectful when all I was trying to do was enforce a rule. Such behavior cannot go unpunished. A possible solution would have been to allow one of my partners to handle the head coach since I was responsible for issuing the the first technical foul, removing myself from an ongoing, escalating situation.
Play 5: During the second half of a tightly contested playoff game, A1 drives through the lane and creates space with her extended off arm. As the center official, I rule a player-control foul. A1, who is not in my general vicinity, is frustrated by the call and pulls down her pandemic-required mask and expresses her displeasure. I see the mask pull, but have no idea what she said. Team B’s coach argues that I need to give her a “T” for unsporting behavior. Ruling 5: No penalty assessed. I have no idea what A1 said, and she did not address me directly. Given the stakes of this particular game, I could not be sure that she was not simply expressing frustration in a key moment versus disrespecting me as an official. The optics in these COVID-19 times may not have been ideal given the mask pull, but I did not feel the behavior rose to the level of a technical foul.
I know that words on paper do not do justice to having to experience these situations in the moment and make real-time decisions. And I do not expect everyone to agree with my decisions. I only hope they open a window to you, the reader, to examine your own philosophy when it comes to unsporting behavior and technical fouls and whether you are satisfied with your own attempts to marry the art of such situations with the science that has been provided to us as officials.
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